Hate is always resurging and reinventing itself, says actor John David Washington, the lead star of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which is based off a true story and comes out a year after the violent “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Washington, a football-player-turned-actor who is the son of Denzel and Pauletta Washington, plays Ron Stallworth — the first African-American detective on the Colorado Springs Police Department. Set in the early 1970s during the Black Power movement, the movie follows Stallworth on a dangerous mission to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a racist extremist.
“What he had to do, I totally understand,” Washington said. “And I don’t know personally if I could do that if I were in his position, but that man did it. And that’s part of why he’s a hero to me because he was able to go there.”
Washington joined Milos Stehlik, WBEZ film contributor and director at Facets Chicago, to discuss the film, the relevance of Stallworth’s story today, and choosing a path that was different than that of his famous parents.
A difficult portrayal
Milos Stehlik: Being an African-American actor who has to mouth racist epithets and pretend to be a white racist, did that create a sense of personal rage for you?
John David Washington: As me, the actor, I had to remove myself to fully inhabit everything, the spirit of this man. Hate has a language, it has a vernacular, so some of these words that you hear in the film are on purpose. They’re not for shock value. He had to sort of entice hate ... so hate could become familiar with him and he could become a part of it so he could infiltrate the Klan.
How a 40-year-old story feels contemporary
Washington: The Ku Klux Klan has had many resurgences. [The 1915 film] Birth of a Nation was a huge resurgence for the Klan. David Duke was sort of a rebirth [for it] — a clean-cut, nice “boy next door” guy, and we see stuff now that’s happening. So, it has a history of reinventing itself. Hate has a history of reinventing itself.
Coaching from Spike Lee
Washington: I’ve never had an experience like this. Because of the collaborative environment, it felt like true teamwork. I felt like he trusted me full-heartedly. And that was encouraging. I come from a football background, so when your teammates and your coach trust you with the game plan, with making plays out there, it gives you this courage and really the confidence to let the game come to you — this sort of way of finding things organically in the performance that you prepare for, but you can’t really plan for. He’s a master at detecting and knowing when there are moments happening and momentum.
Choosing football before acting
Washington: Football was sort of my pipeline to independence. It gave me the confidence to know that I established something on my own. There was no nepotism involved, and there’s none in this business either, but I needed to go through that.
And my father’s ascension in his career — as he got more popular and more recognizable, I felt my life was changing, my relationships with people were changing. It was shifting, I should say.
Stehlik: So your father, Denzel Washington, is actually a pretty good role model because he chooses his roles pretty consciously.
Washington: Yeah, he definitely has a system. He does what he wants to do.
Stehlik: So what do you want to do as an actor?
Washington: I want to be a part of great films. I want to work with great filmmakers, great people — people who are cinema enthusiasts, people who care about the craft, people who cherish the process of not skipping any steps.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which was adapted for the web by Arionne Nettles.